Some Reflection is in Order
If you have been listening to Conservative Refuge Radio the last few weeks, you know that we have been discussing the definition and nature of modern American conservatism. With all of the craziness going on in the Presidential race and the lamentations among conservatives that our movement is dying and being taken over by the populist, nationalist Trump movement, now is a good time to reflect and center ourselves.
Here are some highlights of our discussion. These are ideas and jumping off points for reflection and a clearer understanding of what conservatism is and what it isn’t.
We shared some highlights from the recent work of radio talk show host and lawyer Mark Levin. Specifically, I shared these highlights from his book Liberty and Tyranny a Conservative Manifesto:
“To put it succinctly: Conservatism is a way of understanding life, society, and governance. . . . The Founders believed, and the Conservative agrees, in the dignity of the individual; that we, as human beings, have a right to live, live freely, and pursue that which motivates us not because man or some government say so, but because these are God-given natural rights. . . . In the civil society, the individual is recognized and accepted as more than an abstract statistic or faceless member of some group; rather, he is a unique, spiritual being with a soul and a conscience. He is free to discover his own potential and pursue his own legitimate interests, tempered, however, by a moral order that has its foundation in faith and guides his life and all human life through the prudent exercise of judgment. As such, the individual in the civil society strives, albeit imperfectly, to be virtuous—that is, restrained, ethical, and honorable. He rejects the relativism that blurs the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, and means and ends. . . . In the civil society, private property and liberty are inseparable. The individual’s right to live freely and safely and pursue happiness includes the right to acquire and possess property, which represents the fruits of his own intellectual and/or physical labor. As the individual’s time on earth is finite, so, too, is his labor. The illegitimate denial or diminution of his of his private property enslaves him to another and denies him his liberty. In the civil society, a rule of law, which is just, known, and predictable, and applied equally albeit imperfectly, provides the governing framework for and restraints on the policy, thereby nurturing the civil society and serving as a check against the arbitrary use and, hence, abuse of power. For the Conservative, the civil society has as its purpose its preservation and improvement…”
Levin outlines specific action items conservatives should take with regard to taxation, the environment, the courts, the administrative state, public education, immigration, entitlements, foreign policy, preserving religious liberty and defending the constitution. It is a pretty specific list of policy positions to measure whether a candidate or individual is actually a conservative.
Levin’s work, though, was written in light of the classic liberal/conservative dichotomy of the early Obama years. His ideas of conservatism are juxtaposed to the modern liberal/statist philosophy which dominates the Democratic party. As such, a wider historic view is useful to understand conservatism.
For that, I turned to the work of Russell Kirk. Kirk is widely considered one of the leading thinkers and writers of the modern conservative movement and is often cited by leaders of the conservative renaissance of the late 70’s and early eighties. Reagan, for instance, was a huge fan of his work.
” (1)Belief in a transcendent order or body of natural law that rules society as well as conscience. There is objective truth in the universe, and we can know it. Further, it is the great object of politics to apprehend and apply true Justice to a “community of souls.” Kirk rightly places this idea first on the list; for a conservative, moral relativism is not an option. On this point all others will depend. There are such things as truth and right, falsehood and wrong. Without an unchanging standard, attempts at social living are doomed beforehand for failing to acknowledge that men are spiritual beings not infinitely malleable.
(2)Affection for the variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrow uniformity and egalitarianism of “radical” systems. Conservatives are convinced that life is worth living, as Kirk was fond of saying, and, unlike liberals, do not seek to force sameness upon humanity.
(3)Conviction that civilized society needs the rule of law and the middle class, in contrast to the notion of a “classless society.” Conservatives believe there are natural distinctions among men, leading to inequalities of condition. Conservatives affirm equality before God and the courts; anything more leads to “servitude and boredom.”
(4)Freedom and property are linked: without private property, the state is unstoppable. Redistribution of wealth, by taxes or other means, is not economic progress. Men need property to secure their rights, discharge their duties, and limit government.
(5)Faith in prescription and distrust of those calculating men who would reconstruct all of society according to their own abstract designs. A conservative believes things are the way they are for a good reason: past generations have passed on customs and conventions that stood the test of time. Customs serve as a check on anarchy and the lust for power.
(6)Recognition that change may not be a good thing. Hasty innovation can destroy as well as improve, so conservatives are prudent with their changes and approach reform with caution rather than zeal.”
“First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance ofprescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.
Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic levelling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress. Getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence; but a sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired.
Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger. Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.
Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. Politically speaking, power is the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows. A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic. When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few.
Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.”
Even reviewing these few sources, as we have been doing over the last few weeks, shows several basic concepts about what conservatism is and what it is not.
This week, I shared the following clips from Senator Ben Sasse, Rush Limbaugh and President Ronald Reagan. These clips are from different eras and before different audiences. The messengers are quite different but there is a clarity in understanding what conservatism is by listening to these short clips.
Now is the time for conservatives to understand and reflect upon what conservatism is. As Reagan put it, some men change party for principle some change principle for party. In this election year, more than any other in my lifetime at least, conservatives need to decide which of these choices they are making.
I also invite you to keep listening every Tuesday, or anytime on podcast, to Conservative Refuge Radio as we continue to discuss conservatism. I hope you can also share your feedback.